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Bush urges Cubans to push democracy

U.S.-based exile group wants to make humanitarian deliveries

A sign bearing Fidel Castro's image in Havana this week proclaims things are going well.

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- President Bush offered "full and unconditional" support Thursday for a democratic transition in Cuba, urging Cubans "to work for democratic change."

The comments were part of Bush's first public statement on the situation in Cuba since an ailing Fidel Castro, 79, provisionally handed power to his 75-year-old brother Raul on Monday.

"The United States is absolutely committed to supporting the Cuban people's aspirations for democracy and freedom," Bush said in a written statement.

"We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those in the current Cuban regime who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

Monday's handover marked the first time Fidel Castro has relinquished control of the island nation since seizing power in 1959. Since then, his rule has been marked by a rocky relationship with the United States.

"It has long been the hope of the United Sates to have a free, independent and democratic Cuba as a close friend and neighbor," Bush said.

Bush also called on "all democratic nations to unite in support of the right of the Cuban people to define a democratic future for their country."

Castro's health problems have sparked celebrations among Cuban-American exiles in Miami.

The leader of one exile group based there called on the Bush administration not to interfere with an effort to deliver humanitarian aid to Cuba by boat in the event its communist regime falls.

"We need to take assistance to the Cuban people," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement. "We don't want a solution bred in Washington, Europe or any other place."

Since 1994, the Democracy Movement has organized 17 flotillas to the shores of Cuba to show support for those working for democracy on the island -- much to the chagrin of the U.S. government, which has used the Coast Guard to try to stop them.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American who heads an administration task force planning for a post-Castro Cuba, said Tuesday that plans were in place to stop any large movements in either direction across the Straits of Florida.

Gutierrez is a co-chairman of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which in July issued a report calling for the United States to have assistance to Cuba within weeks of Castro's death to support a transitional government and help move the country toward democracy.

The Democracy Movement, which maintains it has the legal right to transport humanitarian aid, is planning a rally Saturday in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood in an effort to put pressure on the administration to allow it to go ahead with the boatlifts.

The GOP-leaning Cuban-American community in South Florida has strongly supported Bush, who as president has maintained a hard-line policy against the Havana regime, including an economic embargo.

No welcome for Raul Castro

In his statement, Bush did not specifically address Castro's decision to temporarily transfer power while he recovers from intestinal surgery. But a State Department spokesman made it clear Thursday that the administration doesn't see the switch as a significant change in political conditions in Cuba.

"A transition to Raul Castro is yet another imposition of this regime on the Cuban people of an authoritarian government," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

McCormack acknowledged the U.S. "insight into the decision-making process of this particular dictatorship isn't that great."

"I don't think there are too many people outside that small core group of people who run Cuba who really know what is going on," he said.

Fidel Castro and his brother have not appeared in public since the handover. But a message attributed to Fidel Castro and read on Cuban television Tuesday said his health was "stable" and he is in "good spirits."

The statement said Castro's health was a "secret of state" because of unspecified "plans of the empire," a term he uses for the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that she is "very carefully" watching events unfolding in Cuba.

"The transition -- one way or another -- appears to be under way there, and transition will have to come," Rice told CNN's Larry King in an interview to be broadcast Thursday night.

She said the United States is prepared to help Cubans transition to a democracy, declaring, "The time will come when we are no longer talking about the only state in the Western Hemisphere which doesn't have an elected leader."

In his statement, Bush reiterated a pledge of U.S. humanitarian assistance -- but only "in the event of a transition in the Cuban government."

Under the Helms-Burton Act, passed by Congress in 1996 to ratchet up the pressure on the Castro regime, the president can waive sanctions against Cuba only in the event of a move toward democracy. Also, if Raul Castro is part of any transitional government, the law would require sanctions to remain in place.

However, Congress is working on legislation that could clear the way for direct financial aid to Cuban dissidents.

CNN's Dana Bash, Rusty Dornin and Tristan Smith contributed to this report.

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